Ronald Reagan- The Politics of Symbolism By Robert Dallek
In Ronald Reagan- The Politics of Symbolism, Robert Dallek evaluates the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the trends in his career. Dallek tries to answer why Reagan adhered to old, traditional beliefs, and how this ideology came about. The theme is one of criticism, as Dallek attempts to show Reagan’s presidency as a showcase of symbolic politics rather than actual action for the country. Symbolic politics is defined as public goals that satisfy psychological needs as much as material ends (11). He asserts that we must explain Reaganism by looking at the conditions in which he grew up to become a president, as Reaganism is not merely an “aberration” that will disappear with the end of the his presidency (vii). Dallek defines Reaganism to be a return to “old-fashioned republicanism”- tax cuts for the rich, weaker stance on civil rights, less control on industry, and an “emotional rhetoric on the virtues of hard work, family, religion, individualism, and patriotism” (vii). It must be noted that the book was published in 1984, with just three years of Reagan’s presidency observed. While Dallek believed that this was sufficient in order to conclude on his performance, it effects his analyses.
In Part I, Dallek attempts to asses Reagan’s life before his presidency, including his childhood and career in Hollywood to his entrance into politics. Dallek asserts that Reagan’s strong attachment to old values is rooted to his small town upbringings as well as the modern culture of the time. He preferred to play the hero in movies- Dallek relates this to his need to be independent and have control over his own fate (16). In Part II, Dallek discusses Reagan’s presidency in which Reaganomics, or supply side economics was key. Dallek develops his thesis here where he illustrates how symbolic politics were used in all domestic aspects, from education, security, to civil rights (e.g. While weary of civil rights, he visited the Butler family in Maryland who were effected by the KKK to give symbolic comfort to African Americans ). His fear of a failed government and determination to unite his party led him to actions that would, in Dallek’s opinion, prove to hurt the country. In Part III, Dallek analyzes Reagan as an international leader. Dallek believes that symbolic politics again comes into play as Reagan grew up with an anti-Soveit sentiment, becoming the only leader of the time that refused to have a give-and-take relationship with Moscow (189). He used the Soveit Union as a symbol for all that America should not lean towards, picturing them as the “other”. Contrary to his campaign slogans on government and spending, the Reagan era saw the most increase in military buildup- a contradiction Dallek effectively observes. Reagan’s “obsession” would prove minimal advancement in world relations, or “counterproductive”, according to Dallek (194).
Dallak in general carries a critical, and often a blunt tone towards Reagan, emphasizing how the “inner personal grievances” that the president and his conservative administration had were turned into “political concerns” (194). For example, he opinionates that Reaganomics was a “selfish program” aimed at the wealthy, or “Reagan’s class” at the expense of the poor, and that the program is the product of “special interest, or group interest politics than of concern with the national interest” (104). While Dallek’s discussion of symbolic politics is one way to address Reaganism, the fact that he makes his assertions after three years into Reagan’s term makes the book limiting. In 1984, the year the book was published, Reagan won the election comfortably, and his second term was defined by foreign policy as the Cold War started to loom for the future. Dallek’s emphasis on personality of presidents is notable, as he is able to use examples to illustrate the dynamic attitude of Reagan. Tying psychological and the political agenda together as Dallek has accomplished can be useful in observing other presidents of our modern era where personality politics are coming increasingly into play.